David Lauderdale

The value of Gullah traditions comes full circle

The ring shout is peculiarly African and Lowcountry.

For generations, it kept the spirit alive for enslaved Africans brought to these shores.

Over time, the shout dwindled to a whisper, much like other Gullah customs that were suppressed as backward.

Now the ring shout is knocking on the door of the Guiness Book of World Records, of all things. Later this month at a Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., the largest ring shout ever recorded is to be staged to shout a newfound pride in the Gullah/Geechie culture.

The event will be a far cry from the ring shouts Lorenzo Dow Turner recorded in the 1930s along the South Carolina and Georgia coast. Turner, a linguist, documented local African cultural links that now are a source of pride, not shame.

It's fitting that the attention-grabbing record ring shout will take place Saturday outside the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum as a yearlong exhibit closes inside: "Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language."

A ring shout is not what many expect. It doesn't even have to involve shouting. It's a dance by people forming a circle, moving counterclockwise in a religious experience. The feet never cross, as they would in a secular dance. The singing is call-and-response, and the percussion comes from hand-clapping and a stick beaten against a wooden floor.

In plantation days, a ring shout could go all night in a praise house, where the enslaved were free to worship God.

"By setting this record, we want more people worldwide to ask, 'What is a ring shout? What is Geechie? What is Gullah?'" said event coordinator Griffin Lotson of Darien, Ga. He hopes others will heed the call in the future. "We're setting the record so it can be broken."

Lotson sits on the Gullah/Geechie Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. He manages the Geechie Gullah Ring Shouters from the same Georgia coastal area that has produced the McIntosh County Shouters and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, who have performed for world leaders.

While in Washington, a Gullah-Geechie contingent will tour the White House with hopes of being recognized by first lady Michelle Obama, whose traces her Gullah roots to Georgetown, S.C. They will tour the Capitol.

And with "shouters" coming from as far as California, they will form a big ring and respond to the musical calls of Joann Ross and sway to the rhythm of stick man Jack Evans. They will sing an African song recorded in Georgia by Turner.

The shouters hope to make a statement for all the world to hear.

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.